Village Hall Talks at Wootton-By-Woodstock

The project was conceived to raise funds to renovate the village hall in Wootton-by-Woodstock, which was built almost entirely from timber over eighty years ago. Few who have attended the talks would disagree that the evenings have been an engaging mixture of serious insight and comedic observation and we think we are catering for the current thirst for live events in smaller venues.

The Oliver Cox Talk

The Oliver Cox Talk

Whilst the political parties were engaged in widespread blood-letting at Westminster over leadership contests, it was invigorating and reassuring on July 1st to have Oliver Cox talking about the life and work of Lancelot "Capability" Brown, often referred to as "England' greatest gardener" following his influence in over 170 parks surrounding some of the country's finest country houses - and with many designs, such as those at Blenheim, still intact.

In the light of momentous political events, with the UK voting to leave the European Union, Oliver suggested it was a good time to reflect on our national identity - something which Capability Brown, as the man behind England's green and pleasant land, had done a lot to shape. On this 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, Oliver pointed out that - what The Bard has done for English letters - so Capability has done the same for the English landscape.

Oliver suggested it's possible to argue that Brown's success was such that he almost fell into historical obscurity through creating a product so good that subsequent generations of visitors have often given Nature alone the credit. But Oliver said that in 2016 - the 300th anniversary of Brown's birth - it was the perfect time to add him into the popular pantheon of English artistic heroes, alongside Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Constable (and even, mischievously, David Bowie). He added that, unlike with the artist Turner, it is possible to sample Brown's work without having to go into a gallery and there are over 30 landscapes in London alone - and within a twenty-mile radius of Wootton, there are examples of Brown's work at Blenheim, Stowe, Wotton, Thame Park, Rycote and Compton Verney, as well as a number of smaller landscapes.

But Oliver pointed out that it was only three miles away at Kiddington Hall, where it all started for Brown when he appeared there, aged only 23, in 1739 armed with an introduction from his former employer, the Northumbrian landowner, Sir William Lorraine, to the owner of Kiddington, Sir Charles Browne. It was Sir Charles who gave Brown his first break in southern England - when Capability helped create the lawns and lake in front of the existing classical house, with the source of the lake, the River Glyme, to which Brown would return about 20 years later for his work downstream at Blenheim.

After Kiddington Park, Brown moved to Stowe, in Buckinghamshire, where he hit his stride - an estate which Oliver described as "absolutely remarkable, breathtaking and inspiring" and a place of artistic ingenuity and "staggering creativity". The next couple of centuries were to see a stream of famous artists and architects working at Stowe, including Sir John Vanbrugh, William Kent, James Gibbs and Sir John Soane. The house and garden were already well-known when Brown arrived there in 1741 after politics, sociability and great art had combined to make this part of Bukinghamshire the epicentre of English society.

For the past 20 years, added Oliver, Stowe had been a laboratory for experimenting with different types of landscape styles. And the owner, Lord Cobham, now dedicated the latter part of his life to using Stowe as the artistic expression of his belief that Britain should be a world power. Oliver suggested that those young men, such as Kent and Gibbs, clustering around Cobham saw art, landscape and poetry to be intimately connected with politics.

Into this atmosphere, Capability Brown started work as Lord Cobham's head gardener and five years later, in 1746, he started on the project that would make his mark at Stowe - the Grecian Valley, where visitors could imagine themselves as the poets of Classical Antiquity, although the ;project did require the excavation of about 24,00 cubic yards of earth, using both male and female labourers.

Oliver pointed that Brown's time at Stowe provided him with a remarkable networking opportunity and his "brand-reputation" started to develop. One frequent visitor to Stowe in the 1730s and 1740s - and a key networker and supporter - was William Pitt, who would dominate the political landscape for decades and his continuing support in opening doors for Brown resulted in commissions at Petworth, in West Sussex, Wotton, Stratfield Saye and Burton Pynsent.

Brown also fell in with a group surrounding Sanderson Miller, a member of the Warwickshire gentry who, in the middle of the 1740s, was experimenting with a different type of Gothic Revival architecture - and less rococo-fancy. He introduced Brown to a series of clients, including George Coventry at Croome, near Worcester, Lord Guernsey at Packington, the Lucy family at Charlecote near Stratford, Lord Brooke at Warwick Castle and Sir James Dashwood at Kirtlington Park, just a few miles from Wootton.

Oliver told us that Brown's landscapes were simple, uncluttered and restrained - generally comprising sweeping pasture bordered with tree clumps, perimeter shelter-belts and screens of trees. He swept away formal parterres and the classical allusions of the previous age - but also planted thousands of trees, predominantly oak, ash and elm. The resulting landscape was perfectly designed to encourage those 18th Century pursuits of hunting, shooting and carriage-riding.

Oliver concluded his talk with an exploration of the unlikely union of "clumps and concrete" that seemed to many arachitects to offer a suitably English form of international modernism from the 1930s onwards. He quoted Alexandra Harris's book, Romantic Moderns, in which she analysed the thinking of a group of architects, artists and academics who were wondering how to reconnect with "the headily abandoned past". One part of the movement was an attempt to reconstitute 18th Century landscape ideas in response to inter-war suburban development.

Contributors to the Architectural Review suggested that the 18th Century tradition had the power to provid a guide for solving the problem of how to "reconstitute a balance between the claims of town and country". One article even included a proposition for Blenheim where the park and garden would be retained - but, in place of the palace, a block of flats would be built.

Romantic Moderns, such as John Betjeman, suggested that "landscape for us has shrunk into a back garden" - and that architects, planners and politicians needed to recapture the 18th Century's scale and magnificence of vision. One young architect, Christopher Tunnard, used Capability Brown as an attempt to provide a "manifesto for modernism in landscape". And in 1950, one biography of Brown included the suggestion that his style of landscape needed to be rehabilitated - and that he was not just a landscape designer, but his work could provide a guide on how to fundamentally recalibrate post-war reconstruction, away from short-term solutions towards "a requisite largeness and length of vision". However, this vision for landscape and design required the British to sacrifice their own suburban plots to confirm the idea of landscape as "a common garden".

Oliver suggested out that - from the mid-1960s onwards - Brown became part of the nation's DNA, a cultural reference point by millions of visits to publically accessible landscapes. In so doing, he added, Brown became a reassuring, conservative vision of Englishness, but this process had robbed him of the potency as a symbol of forging a new future - and not just used to celebrate the past.

Over 130 people packed the hall to listen to Oliver's compelling talk and, afterwards, enjoyed some "Capabili-teas" which Ann Day had created based on recipes from the 18th Century and which have been resurrected for Capability's tercentenary year.

"Capability Brown was clearly one of the earliest landscape gardeners to create a brand which was in such huge demand throughout the country - and it was a business which made him a multi-millionaire in today's money, working hands-on at projects many miles apart. He must have been supreme salesman to be able to persuade landowners to invest considerable amounts of money in schemes which they - and even their children and grandchildren - would never see fully completed. Oliver's talk was informative and uplifting in making the case for Capability as one of Britain's greatest creative-forces - and from whom modern architects can still learn a great deal. A terrific end to a great season" - Chris Boulton, London


Friday October 14th 2016.

90th talk and eighth birthday

The talk is entitled: Remembering Shakespeare

Laurie is a Professor of English Literature at Magdalen College, Oxford, and a leading authority on the works of William Shakespeare and she has been in demand around the world this year - the 400th anniversary of the playwright's death.

We are delighted that Laurie has agreed to appear in Wootton as the speaker on our eighth birthday - and returns by popular demand following her magisterial talk on Helen of Troy in April 2012.

At Oxford, Laurie teaches Shakespeare and the Renaissance, as well as lecturing on his contemporaries. Her wide-ranging research includes textual studies, Elizabethan performance and classical influences on Renaissance writers. She has also written widely on Elizabethan barbers and surgeons and medical humanities.

Laurie's extensive list of publications includes her book, Thirty Great Myths about Shakespeare (co-authored with Emma Smith); the highly popular Where There's a Will There's A Way; plus Shakespeare's Names; and How to Do Things with Shakespeare.

Laurie is a trustee of Shakespeare's Globe and, as well as being a world authority on Shakespeare, she is also a committed athlete and has swum Lake Windermere.

If you are interested in attending this talk or would like to reserve a ticket please Contact us


Friday November 11th 2016..

Emma Bridgewater has become a household name, having spent 30 years building up a hugely successful pottery business, with products most recognisable in her trademark mugs, bowls and plates. Emma was educated at Oxford High School and at London University, where she read English.

With no formal training, she quickly established the business bearing her name - and which now employs 250 people in London and in Stoke on Trent, where she spearheaded a revival in traditional craft skills in the Potteries.

A refusal to outsource manufacturing to low-wage economies abroad has led Emma to a role as a champion of British industry and in particular of manufacturing in the UK - something about which she feels very strongly. Emma is married to illustrator and designer Matthew Rice, who spoke in Wootton in July 2013, and they live with their four children near Oxford.

If you are interested in attending this talk or would like to reserve a ticket please Contact us


Friday December 2nd 2016.

Tim is a professor at the University of Sheffield where he teaches animal behaviour and the history of science. He is making a return visit to Wootton by popular demand following his compelling appearance in March 2012 when he spoke so wonderfully about his book, called Bird Sense.

On this occasion, Tim, a Fellow of the Royal Society of London and multi-award winning author, will be speaking about his latest publication, called The Most Perfect Thing (Inside and Outside a Bird’s Egg) , in which he examines such key questions such as - how are eggs of different shapes made, and why are they the shape they are? When does the shell of an egg harden? Why do some eggs contain two yolks? How are the colours and patterns of an eggshell created, and why do they vary? And which end of an egg is laid first – the blunt end or the pointy end?

These are just some of the issues that The Most Perfect Thing answers as the journey of a bird's egg from creation and fertilisation to its eventual hatching is examined - with current scientific knowledge placed within an historical context. Beginning with an examination of the stunning eggs of the guillemot, each of which is so variable in pattern and colour that no two are ever the same, Tim then looks at the eggs of hens, cuckoos and many other birds, revealing weird and wonderful facts about these miracles of nature. Woven around and supporting these facts are extraordinary stories of the individuals who, from as far back as Ancient Egypt, have been fixated on the study and collection of eggs - but not always to the benefit of their conservation.

As Thomas Wentworth Higginson proclaimed in 1862 - "I think that, if required on pain of death to name instantly the most perfect thing in the universe, I should risk my fate on a bird's egg".

The Most Perfect Thing is beautifully illustrated and has won rave reviews. Nick Davies, author of Cuckoo wrote: "The title is also a perfect description of the book itself - full of wonder and surprise and beautifully written”, whilst The Sunday Times described it as: “Eye-opening ….thoroughly engaging, it also gives us a thrilling sense of the vast, unmapped territories that lie beyond, waiting to be discovered”. The Observer said: "“Birkhead's approach to writing – hard, clear sentences; deep, revelatory looking – has the same effect as his microscope, bringing objects to light that were previously hidden, making us see the familiar with new eyes“ and BBC Wildlife magazine added that Tim is "justly acclaimed for his brilliance at explaining complex science in a beguilingly lively style ….I suspect that this beautifully written volume will end up the best bird book of 2016”

Tim's research has taken him all over the world in the quest to understand the lives of birds. He has written for The Independent, New Scientist, BBC Wildlife and among his other books are The Wisdom of Birds, Great Auk Islands, The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Birds, which won the McColvin medal, and The Red Canary - winner of the Consul Cremer Prize.

If you are interested in attending this talk or would like to reserve a ticket please Contact us


Friday January 13th 2017.

Sir Anthony, currently Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham, is a leading contemporary historian, educationalist, commentator and political author.

He was Master of Wellington College, in Berkshire, one of Britain's leading independent schools, until 2015. Sir Anthony is also the author or editor of over 40 books on contemporary history, politics and education, including biographies of Sir John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. He was co-founder and first director of the Centre for Contemporary British History and he is also co-founder of Action for Happiness, as well as being honorary historical adviser to 10 Downing Street.

Sir Anthony's many other activities include being Chair of the National Comment Awards, a member of the First World War Centenary Culture Committee, and a governor of The Royal Shakespeare Company.

If you are interested in attending this talk or would like to reserve a ticket please Contact us


Friday February 10th 2017.

His talk is called: The Joy of Railways

Michael is a leading author, journalist and academic – writing, broadcasting and blogging on transport, society and the media. He is the best-selling author of several highly-acclaimed books on Britain's railways, including On the Slow Train (Twelve Great British Railway Journeys); Steaming to Victory (How Britain's Railways Won the War); and his recently updated work, The Trains Now Departed (Sixteen Excursions into the Lost Delights of Britain's Railways). His talk will be packed with nostalgia – and some enjoyable armchair travelling for a winter's evening.

Michael is also a leading travel writer, reporting on journeys around the world for a variety of publications. In his academic role, he is co-editor and author of the book The Future of Quality News Journalism. Formerly, he was Deputy Editor of the Independent on Sunday, Executive Editor of The Independent, Head of News and Features at the Sunday Times; and he was also on the staff of The Times. Michael still regularly contributes to the national media, including the BBC, Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, New Statesman, the Tablet, The History Channel, as well as the specialist and business press.

In addition, Michael is chairman of the Springdene Care Homes Group in London and external examiner in the School of Media and Communication at Goldsmiths University, in London. He lives with his family in Camden Town, London.

If you are interested in attending this talk or would like to reserve a ticket please Contact us


OX20 1DZ

John Lloyd & John Mitchinson Talk, Summer 2009

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Ashmolean Museum

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